What Do Your Do When Your Child Is Fearful?

Share your child's fear. Establish ownership of feelings. Initiate calming.

Posted Oct 25, 2020

When a child expresses fear, remember these three things.

Share The Fear

Caregivers need to let a fearful child know what they feel is being shared. They are not alone in what they feel.

Own The Fear

Caregivers should make it clear whose feelings are whose. He or she might say, "What you are feeling are YOUR feelings. I'm feeling what YOU are feeling, but I'm also feeling what I am feeling." Emphasizing words of ownership helps a child understand another person can simultaneously share feelings and have different feelings. Ownership reduces the child's concern that their fears might overwhelm the caregiver and make them pull away.

Calm The Fear

The caregiver needs to activate the child's calming parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Neuroscience finds a child's PNS is activated by the signals from a caregiver's face, voice quality, and touch/body-language if the child is physically and emotionally safe in the caregiver's presence.

Children Need To Develop Independent Calming

In early childhood, a child needs to develop an "app" that will activate their PNS when stress builds up. This app is what attachment theorist John Bowlby called "an internal working model of secure attachment."

  • Internal. It is in the child's mind.
  • Model. It replicates the child-caregiver relationship.
  • Working. It makes things happen in the mind.
  • Secure Relationship. To make calming happen, it must be based on a secure relationship.

About 40% of us grow up without secure attachment and control anxiety by controlling what happens and having a way to escape if things go wrong. Unable to activate our own PNS, we haven't taught our children how to activate theirs. We hide our fears from them.

Researchers at Washington State University studied parents and their children (between 7 and 11) and found children reacted when parents tried to hide their stress. When fathers hid their stress from kids, the kids felt less engaged but not more stressed. But when mothers hid their stress, the kids felt less engaged and more stressed. When either parent hides their stress, children experience the parent as less warm and engaged. Researcher Sara Waters said, "So if you're stressed and just say, 'Oh, I'm fine', that only makes you less available to your child. We found that the kids picked up on that and reciprocated, which becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic." 

Waters says parents should accept their children's feelings and not try to fix them. "Just sit with them and give them a chance to regulate those emotions on their own." This advice fits with what neuroscience tells us about calming. A child's fears are neutralized by the parent's calming signals.

Do you remember the advice to passengers about using an oxygen mask when flying with a child? If the oxygen masks drop down, you are told to put on your oxygen mask first and then put the child’s oxygen mask on.

Calle Macarone on Unsplash
Source: Calle Macarone on Unsplash

To calm a child, a caregiver needs to first calm themself. Nothing calms a child as effectively as being a calm, safe, and non-critical person to be with.

I had a client who was born in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution. When she was a few months old, her parents feared they would be identified as members of the underground. They worried that they would be arrested before they could escape. Finally, they were able to cross the border into Austria in a truck under a shipment of potatoes.

As an adult, my client was troubled by anxiety and panic. Her sister, born in the U.S. two years later, had no anxiety issues. This suggests their mother had the ability to produce secure attachment, but fear made it impossible for her to make her first child securely attached.

Do you need a better working model of secure attachment within yourself? Is it hard to get upset? It is easy to calm down when things go wrong? If so, you've got a great app. If it is easy to get upset and hard to calm down, you can establish a PNS-activating app now if you can recall the presence of a physically and emotionally safe person. Through repetition of the exercise below, link your memory of that person's face, voice quality, and touch/body-language to the feeling of alarm you get when stress hormones are released. The exercise is from my book, Panic Free Pandemic Workbook: Exercises To Calm Pandemic-Related Fear, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia. It refers to "vagal braking." It is by activation of the vagus nerve that the PNS slows the heart rate, slows the breathing rate, and relaxes the gut.

The Three-Button Exercise

Imagine your friend has pasted a sticker on their forehead bearing a picture of a button with the number 1 on it. Another sticker, showing button number 2, is pasted on their chin. A third sticker, with button number 3, is pasted on the back of their hand.

Now imagine feeling alarmed. Imagine putting your finger on the button 1 sticker on their forehead and then releasing it. Their face comes clearly to mind. You see the softness in their eyes. It feels good. 

Imagine putting your finger on the button 2 sticker. As you release it, the person’s lips begin to move, and you hear them greet you in a special way. You may notice that the quality of their voice calms you deep inside.

Imagine touching the button 3 sticker on the back of their hand. When you release the button, the person lifts their hand and gives you a reassuring touch or a hug—whatever gesture is appropriate in your relationship with this person. You may notice calming stillness rest on you.

You can activate vagal braking by pressing the buttons any time you wish. But we want to set up calming that works automatically. To establish automatic attenuation, intentionally remember feeling alarmed, and then press button 1. Remember the feeling again; press button 2. Bring the feeling to mind again; press button 3.

Repeated use of this exercise can teach the PNS to automatically kick in when calming is needed.